If You Lived Here You’d Be Home by Now: Why We Traded the Commuting Life for a Little House on the Prairie by Christopher Ingraham; Harper, 288 pp., $24.99
The dream of relocating to the countryside in search of a slower-paced, more meaningful life has a proud literary tradition. Consider Thoreau’s Walden, Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, or Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. But if the impulse isn’t new, neither are the cautions against seeking its fulfillment. “You people there in the capital are interested in the provinces solely from a poetic viewpoint, that is to say, the picturesque,” a rural administrator tells a wealthly Muscovite in Anton Chekhov’s 1895 novella Three Years, “but I assure you, my friend, there is nothing in the least poetic here—there is barbarism, vulgarity, and meanness, nothing more.” Such a warning, applied to our own day, carries an ominous resonance for anyone unnerved by the sight of a red MAGA hat. Americans today find themselves divided along any number of lines, but perhaps the oldest and most intractable is that which separates those of us who live in cities or suburbs from those who don’t.
One August morning in 2015, Christopher Ingraham, a data journalist at The Washington Post, dashed off a piece that, let’s just say, did nothing to bridge the gap. In the late 1990s, USDA statisticians put together a “natural amenities scale” that ranked all 3,108 counties in the continental United States based on environmental factors known to affect quality of life, such as average sunlight, temperature, topography, and proximity to water. Dead last on the list was Red Lake County, Minnesota—dark and bitingly cold in the winter, relentlessly flat, and despite its name, nowhere near a lake. Having reviewed the findings, Ingraham posted a tongue-in-cheek story anointing Red Lake County “the absolute worst place to live in America.” Within minutes, his inbox began filling with messages from outraged Red Lake residents, calling him out for disparaging their county sight unseen. One of them invited Ingraham to visit, and thinking it would make a humorous follow-up piece, he did. The result is If You Lived Here You’d Be Home by Now—an account of how he and his family fled the crowded, expensive, traffic-choked Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., for the spacious skies and not-so-fruited plain of rural, northern Minnesota. The book is essential reading for anyone, present company included, who has fantasized about leaving the city behind and starting over on a smaller scale.
The United States was predominately rural and agricultural until 1920, when the U.S. Census revealed that, for the first time, more people were living in urban areas than anywhere else. Since then, the demographic shift has only accelerated, with roughly 80 percent of Americans now residing in or within commuting distance of cities. Even so, dreams of the pastoral life persist. In 2014, the Pew Research Center found that 54 percent of people surveyed said that, given the choice, they would prefer to live in a small town or rural area. “The implication is that a considerable chunk of the U.S. population—potentially as much as 30 percent—is stuck in the cities and suburbs and dreaming of escape to the country,” Ingraham writes. “In the summer of 2015, I was one of them.”
Ingraham sprinkles his book with facts that help support his decision to take his family “to a place where it didn’t feel like the trend lines of time and money were always converging, squeezing us into an ever-narrowing sphere of existence.” Whether it be total time spent commuting each year, measured in full calendar days (31.3 in Maryland vs. 9.3 in northern Minnesota), population density per square mile (1,391 vs. 9), or median home price per square foot ($493 vs. $53), the benefits seemed clear, even if it meant sacrificing in other areas, such as access to quality health care and jobs (Ingraham was fortunate enough to keep his position at the Post).
These factors, along with the promise of spending more time with his family, motivated Ingraham’s initial decision to relocate. But once his family arrived in the hamlet of Red Lake Falls (population 1,400), a more fundamental, if less tangible, benefit revealed itself: the opportunity to join a tight-knit community in which the kind of social capital whose loss Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam mourned in his 2000 book, Bowling Alone, is alive and well. The same could not be said for one of Ingraham’s neighbors back in Maryland, an irritable loner who lay dead in his house for two weeks before his body was discovered. Such a thing would be unthinkable in Red Lake Falls, where, Ingraham writes, people “gasp in shock and disbelief” whenever he recounts the story. Red Lake, he continues, is “simply the kind of place where everybody knows everyone—and they even know whether or not you’re home.”
Almost immediately, Ingraham and his family were besieged with welcome baskets of local produce and pleas to get involved—to join the local commerce committee, arts council, or the community band. “In the cities, economies of scale mean either these tasks are professionalized—people get paid to do them—or competition for the most desirable activities, like music or theater groups, is stiff,” he writes. “Here, by contrast, getting involved is easy. If you want to join a band or help with kids or put out fires, just show up.” Ingraham’s wife, at first unmoored by the move and the loss of her job back in Maryland, soon immersed herself in Red Lake’s civic life, ultimately winning a seat on the Red Lake Falls city council. She received 98.99 percent of the vote, “a margin that would have made Saddam Hussein proud,” Ingraham writes.
Hillary Clinton won just 30.17 percent in Red Lake Falls. Indeed, hovering in the background of any book about rural life in America is the specter of Donald Trump and all that he signifies about the urban-rural split in our political culture. Ingraham, who moved to Red Lake Falls just as the 2016 campaign was shaping up, was as shocked as anyone at the result. “I lived in the heart of Trump country for six months prior to the election and had no idea that the election would unfold the way it did.” Red Lake County ticks all the expected boxes for “fly-over country”: rural, working class, overwhelmingly white, and Christian. But as Ingraham writes, such homogeneity doesn’t tell the whole story. Barack Obama won Red Lake County in 2008, and in 2012 Democrats swept every electoral contest—local, state, and federal—with the exception of the presidential race, in which Mitt Romney claimed a narrow victory. Things changed in 2016, but as Ingraham writes, voters “weren’t supporting Trump as much as they were opposing Clinton.”
Coastal media tend to describe the nation’s interior in monolithic terms, but Ingraham reminds us that reality is rarely so straightforward. The morning after the 2016 election, on assignment for the Post, he went searching for “geezers” who had voted Republican. “If there’s any place to find a Trump voter,” he reasoned, “it would be a Red Lake Falls gas station at nine in the morning.” Instead, he encountered a group of dismayed teachers, farmers, and laborers, most of whom had supported Clinton. Ingraham felt shame at having unfairly stereotyped them “based on my preconceived notions of what a Trump voter looked like.” As he writes, “[E]ven in the heart of Trump country there are thousands of pockets of places where voters chose Hillary Clinton. Those voters usually live in the small cities and towns that dot the nation by the thousands.”
In Red Lake County, far from encountering only “barbarism, vulgarity, and meanness,” Ingraham found a home. He’d intended to stay for a year, perhaps two, but now has no plans to leave. Living there, he writes, “has opened my eyes to all the things that get lost when you abstract people, places, and points in time down to a single number on a computer screen.” It’s a lesson that even those of us who are not data journalists should take to heart.
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